By Kelly Anne Smith
NORTH BAY—“I make people laugh with my silliness because that’s the gift I was given to survive this life,” posted Cecile Hookimaw on Facebook to all of her friends recently.
She did survive after building a life and losing it. She figured out why and is now stronger than ever. As a child, Cecile was abused at St. Anne’s Residential School.
Residential School is capitalized in respect for the survivors and those who died within the system. Odds were greater that children died in Residential School than if they were fighting in World War II. Over 150,000 children were subjected to trauma. Residential Schools stripped children of love from their families and for their culture.
Hookimaw survived with a sense of humour. She drifted in life, became passionate about Indigenous culture and now helps other Indigenous voices rise.
Hookimaw is a member of Nishnawbe Aski Nation from Attawapiskat and a mother of seven. She has instructed Cree language at the North Bay Indian Friendship Centre, is in the second year of the Canadore College Social Service Worker program and is the Child Well-Being Working Group Coordinator at the Union of Ontario Indians which oversees 40 First Nations.
“I went to St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany. I was age [six to nine] and part of 10—four and a half years.” When asked if Hookimaw hid her painful memories, she replied, “I did all my life. I put it aside and that’s why I had an unhealthy life. I’m starting to remember a lot of it.
Even when I had a good government job—then we had a house and vehicles–nice everything.
I was never happy. I never knew what was wrong with me until I hit my rock-bottom and came out of it. That’s when I realized I had to deal with my Residential School [experience]. That was a big issue and only happened about seven years ago.” Cecile says it’s been six years of hard work to get her life moving forward.
She had to work through issues about her relationship with her parents too. “When I was a teenager living on my own, I did think about Residential School. I was living in Ottawa. I could not ignore the anger I had towards my parents. I was really angry at them knowing what they went through in Residential School. When they went through it, it was a lot harsher. There were more deaths. They saw kids being beaten to death.”
Cecile said it was worse for them because of being used as human guinea pigs. “Children were getting injected with TB and Polio and getting starved. I didn’t understand why they would put us in there.
I had an older brother that went, about two years older than me. I had a younger brother, but he was too young to go.” He may have escaped Residential School, but not the challenges of life.
It was about the way we were brought up. It wasn’t a very good childhood. It was OK when I was younger before Residential School. I can remember those days. But after, it was never the same. We still went into the bush, but it was never the same again after.”
Swampy Cree was Cecile’s first language. “I didn’t know any English when I went to St. Anne’s. I had heard English, but never spoke before going to school. You are told to only speak their language.”
Cecile was punished for trying to speak to others in Cree. “We used to get hit a lot. Other kids had their mouths washed out but we got hit a lot as punishment for speaking Cree.”
Cecile says some of the nuns were Cree. “They wouldn’t do anything in their classes if we spoke our language. They weren’t supposed to let us. So with certain people at night, we were allowed to speak Cree because some of the ‘guardians’ that kept us were from the community itself, Fort Albany. Not like before in my Mom’s generation. There was no speaking Cree whatsoever.”
Cecile told of her parent’s stories of witnessing children being beaten to death. “They used to stand the kids in a circle and make them watch kids get beaten with two by four’s [wooden planks].”
Hookimaw is sullen and speaking in a whisper. “The electric chair was used as entertainment for the visiting priests. It wasn’t used for punishment. I remember they would put the boys in there for fun. It was hard. They were a lot older.”
For the longest time, Hookimaw didn’t admit she went to Residential School. “I was ashamed but not only about what happened to me. I didn’t want to admit it wasn’t just the priests and nuns that abused us. It was our own people that were working there because it happened to them.
They were the guardians. I didn’t know that for a long time. When you are that young, you don’t know what is going on. I had no idea until I got older. And then I didn’t want to admit because I was where everyone was getting abused by nuns and priests. Meanwhile, I was abused by our own people. So I said no, I never went. For the longest time I didn’t say anything.”
Hookimaw says she was young and confused about the sexual abuse and has worked through it.
Cecile’s guardians were women staying overnight and over the weekends with the children while the priests and nuns lived elsewhere. Hookimaw describes some of them as really bad. “One woman there treated me with a lot of physical abuse. She was violent and mean. I had a lot of broken bones healed over.”
Cecile was thrown down the stairs by her perpetrator. She describes her worst memory. “She would throw me in a locker and leave me there, even over the whole weekend. I would get drinks once in a while. I had to stand up and soil myself in there. I wasn’t the only one. And that was one of our own people.”
About 22 years ago, Hookimaw started dealing with her horrific experience by working with special investigators from the RCMP to find the perpetrator.
Hookimaw never knew what the outcome was for the abuser who was charged and called before a judge. The woman has since deceased.
Her lawyer, Meredith Porter flew to North Bay from Ottawa to meet her about three or four years ago. “I didn’t know the extent of the abuse until I went for my hearing for compensation. My documents came with medical records. That’s when I knew I had healed over broken bones.” Because of the evidence, Cecile didn’t have to take part in a tribunal for survivors, but she told her story at the hearing.
“I kind of put it on the back burner for most of my life. Because of my history with Residential School and the way I was brought up with a lot of violence. I led an unhealthy life.”
Hookimaw says her downfall began when her doctor gave her narcotics. She got hooked, hit rock bottom, and lost everything. “I only had what I was wearing and had nowhere to go.” Soon after, she overdosed and was in a coma for a month. When she came-to in a Sudbury hospital, she couldn’t even remember her name.
“Since then I haven’t touched anything, no drugs, no alcohol. I was given that second chance. I was determined because I was angry at the Creator for bringing me back.” At first in a wheelchair, it took Cecile two years to get healthy again with dialysis included.
Then Hookimaw reached out for help. “The first place I went was a healing lodge. That’s when I first knew this is it. This is the way I’m going to be healing. I started connecting with people and with ceremonies.”
Hookimaw is commited to the Sundance ceremony–a four year dedication. “You can’t eat or drink. We dance and pray. We pray for everybody that is hurting. At first I didn’t understand that. You are not supposed to pray for yourself but through caring about others, it is for you. So you pray and dance and your body is pure. The fast of no food and water is for three days. You suffer.
This was my third year. My son Skylar did it with me. It is his first year. He pierced with me and they let us hang on to each other.
You know the men suffer more. The women just pierce. They hang and drag the buffalo skulls. Skylar dragged the buffalo skulls and I didn’t expect that to happen because it was only his first year. He talked with our Sundance Chief and he needed to do it. For a mother to watch her own child suffer you just want to stop it but you just have to support him.
It was so powerful. I was the first person he came to. He said, “I did this for you, for everything you go through. You’ve been through so much to be the person you are today. I also did [it for] my sisters.”
The Hookimaw’s are closer now. “He was more powerful after that. We talk a lot more and he has more respect for me.”
The future is bright for Cecile Hookimaw. She feels honoured to be working in her job introducing the new child welfare law in Ontario. She points out any district can adopt the new law that will keep children who are in jeopardy, in their own home or at least in their own communities.
Hookimaw says her greatest joys are her children and grandchildren. She will continue to work hard for positive change in their lives and lighten up now and again with a good laugh. As she always says, “Keep smiling.”